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Daunte Culpepper needed only five yards, but some of his Minnesota Vikings teammates were openly doubting their quarterback's ability to get them. "No way you can do it, Pep," one player yelled last Thursday in the locker room of the team's training facility in Eden Prairie, Minn. Culpepper, a 6'4", 264-pound marvel, insisted that he could indeed walk on his hands from one side of the room to the other. One skeptic, tight end Jermaine Wiggins, wagered $500. Culpepper assumed the handstand position, traversed the required 15 feet and collected the cash.
Betting against Culpepper, in any endeavor, is not recommended. Though he is prone to professing his prowess in a wide array of activities, ranging from dancing to dominoes, the 27-year-old quarterback backs up his boasts more often than not. As Culpepper is fond of proclaiming, "What can I say? I am a man of many talents."
When it comes to his primary skill, throwing the football, Culpepper has good reason to brag: Seven weeks into the season the sixth-year veteran has been so prolific he is the leading candidate for league MVP, hands down. With 19 touchdown passes against three interceptions, an out-of-this-world 73.3 completion percentage and 1,949 passing yards, Culpepper is riding a hot streak that has evoked comparisons with Dan Marino's record-setting season for the Miami Dolphins in 1984 (chart, page 65). Daunte's inferno continued in a 20--3 home win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, when he completed 24 of 30 passes for 183 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, only to have his NFL-leading passer rating drop three points, to 124.0.
"When we're rolling like this, it's a beautiful thing," Culpepper said after Minnesota, the NFC North leaders, improved to 5--1. With All-Pro wideout Randy Moss relegated to a cameo appearance because of a strained right hamstring, Culpepper proved to 64,108 fans that he is capable of carrying the Vikings--and, if necessary, one of the Titans as well. On third-and-16 from the Tennessee 43 late in the second quarter, Culpepper was flushed out of the pocket and caught from behind by blitzing cornerback Andre Woolfolk; he then seemingly channeled the improvisational brilliance of Fran Tarkenton. As Woolfolk spun him around, Culpepper, while falling, switched the ball to his left hand and lobbed it back over his head to Wiggins, who charged ahead for a 10yard gain.
On the ensuing fourth-and-six play, Culpepper raced to his right to elude Titans defensive end Carlos Hall and fired a 14-yard completion to wideout Nate Burleson. Then, 28 seconds before halftime, Culpepper threw a two-yard touchdown pass to wideout Marcus Robinson, giving the Vikings a 17--3 lead that effectively doomed the once-mighty Titans (2--5) to yet another frustrating afternoon.
"Daunte's in a zone," Keith Bulluck, Tennessee's Pro Bowl outside linebacker, said as he walked off the field. "He's comfortable in his offense and comfortable with his players, and they're playing really well. I just hope they don't choke late in the season, like they always do."
If Bulluck's words sting, it's because the Vikings well remember what happened at the same point in the season last year. Off to a 6--0 start Minnesota then gave up 450 yards of total offense in a 29--17 loss to the New York Giants at the Metrodome. In the locker room afterward, owner Red McCombs interrupted coach Mike Tice's comments to his players and angrily told them, "You embarrassed me and your fans out there today." According to players who were in the room, an enraged Tice followed his boss's remarks by yelling, in a thinly veiled reference to the San Antonio--based McCombs, "I'm sick of these f------ people who aren't with us every day coming in here and judging this team!" After slamming his fist against a metal laundry bin, Tice stormed off--only to be slapped on the back by an apparently oblivious McCombs, who drawled, "That's right, Coach Tice."
It's little wonder, then, that after the Vikings faded to 9--7 (finishing with a last-play loss to the hapless Arizona Cardinals that deprived Minnesota of a division title and a postseason berth), Tice, in a season-ending speech to his players, told them he wasn't sure he'd be asked to return for a third year. A team source says McCombs did spend several days considering a coaching change before deciding against it.
With a reported salary of $750,000, Tice is the league's lowest-paid coach by a wide margin and entered the 2004 season with little job security. ( McCombs, who is contemplating a sale of the franchise, can exercise an option in January to retain Tice for a fourth year at $1 million.) "I don't really worry about that stuff," Tice, 45, said last Friday. "I think the only ones worried about it are my wife and daughter. They comment about it all the time, how embarrassing it is. They're mad it's not being addressed."
Before Sunday's game McCombs told SI that he has decided to exercise Tice's option for 2005, "and we'll sit down and discuss whether or not Mike wants to work out an extension. If he [loses the rest of his games], I'm still going to exercise the option. Mike is going to stay with me as long as he wants to."